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Lofty Visions 

The Loft Cinema celebrates its 40th birthday with a dynamic film festival and a brand-new screen

One day in the middle of October, Peggy Johnson was standing in a dusty former auto-repair shop just east of the Loft Cinema that was in the process of being transformed into a new movie theater.

There was still plenty of work to be done, but the new screening room was definitely starting to take shape. The old garage doors had been plastered over on the inside of the theater. New walls surrounded an ascending set of risers where the rows that will hold 98 seats will be installed. A projection booth was under construction at the rear of the theater.

"It looks like a real movie theater," Johnson said. "Isn't it great?"

Johnson was both excited about the new space and nervous about getting it done in time for the third annual Loft Film Festival, which begins Thursday, Nov. 8, and concludes on Thursday, Nov. 15. Seats needed to be installed. An air conditioner needed to be put in. Bathrooms were under construction. The inside and outside walls needed a paint job. A new 3-D digital projector had to be set up.

It was a stroke of luck to land the space next door to the Loft, according to Johnson.

"It was luck that the guy was willing to sell it," she said. "It was luck that it turned out to be the perfect building."

The new theater—dubbed Screen 3—represents yet another leap forward for the Loft Cinema, an independent art house that's celebrating four decades of showing alternative movies this week.

For its first 19 years, the Loft showed movies at Sixth Street and Fremont Avenue in a creaky old building that had first served as a church and then as a space for live theater performance and porn-film screenings before it became the New Loft, where Tucsonans could see art films and other offbeat fare.

In 1991, after the UA purchased the New Loft's building and slated it for demolition, then-owner Joe Esposito moved the theater to its current—and much larger—Speedway Boulevard home in the former Showcase Cinema. He dropped the "New" from the name, rechristened it the Loft Cinema and continued the tradition of screening alternative films.

Johnson, a former political reporter for KUAT Channel 6, left the journalism world after earning a master's degree in cinema and led an effort to purchase the Loft 10 years ago. She was fortunate enough to raise enough money for the purchase through a new non-profit foundation before someone else snatched up the valuable Speedway property. A Tucson-Phoenix shuttle company nearly bought it, but the sale fell through in the wake of Sept. 11.

Since taking over the Loft, Johnson has created a film lover's wonderland. With the help of programming director Jeff Yanc and the rest of her team, the theater now shows about 250 new movies a year.

"And there are the Cult Classics every week, so that's another 52 a year," Johnson said. "And there's Essential Cinema every month, so that's 12 more. And then there's the One-Hit Wonders and the Showcases. Sometimes, we'll have four or five things a day. It's crazy."

Along with the movies, Johnson has brought a parade of filmmakers, movie stars and speakers through the theater, starting with journalist Christopher Hitchens just six weeks after opening. Other guests have included actors Griffin Dunne, Rosanna Arquette and Bobcat Goldthwait, and filmmakers Alex Cox, Kirby Dick and the Zellner brothers.

"I couldn't name my favorites," Johnson said. "But John Waters wasn't bad. And John Cameron Mitchell was one of the best weekends of my life. And the film festivals have been really cool. There have just been so many."

Three years ago, the team launched the Loft Film Festival "because we didn't have enough to do," Johnson said with a laugh.

The festivals have celebrated the cutting edge of modern cinema with a wide range of award-winning and notable films, along with special guests such as Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly and German film star Udo Kier, who was the recipient of the first-ever "Lofty" Achievement Award last year.

This year, the Loft is honoring legendary B-movie director and producer Roger Corman, who is the subject of a new biopic, Corman's World, that will screen on Saturday, Nov. 10. The festival will also feature two of Corman's classic films, Death Race 2000 and The Masque of the Red Death, an Edgar Allan Poe adaptation with Vincent Price. In addition, the festival includes a collection of trailers from Corman's films that will be shown after the ribbon-cutting for the new theater.

The festival is also honoring Mexican director Carlos Reygadas, whose Post Tenebras Lux recently won the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival. Reygadas will be at the Loft on Friday, Nov. 9.

In total, the festival will feature more than 40 films, including award-winning foreign films, dramas such as the new adaption of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, comedies, horror, sci-fi, shorts from UA filmmakers, a wide range of documentaries and more. (For a list of highlights, see "Coming Attractions," Page 18.)

Johnson said the idea behind the annual festival "was to do what we do all year long, but in a compressed, eight-day period, and show films that we are passionate about—films that are more festival-type films. We take a few more chances and give the audience a chance to be a little more adventurous. Although, really, we do that all year long, too."

This year, the festival will also celebrate the opening of Screen 3 with the ribbon-cutting on Friday evening, Nov. 9. The additional screen has been one of Johnson's dreams for years. It will mean the Loft can add more programming and make itself available for more rentals.

The new building will include the Back Lot, a patio where movies can be projected against the back wall.

The Loft is picking up a cable television package as well, "so we'll be able to show Mad Men and sports and Breaking Bad and Walking Dead and stuff like that," Johnson said.

"I've been using the term 'diversified portfolio,' because the more diversified your portfolio when you're making investments, the more likely you are to succeed, because you're not relying on one thing," she said. "We're just diversifying the heck out of our portfolio."

Although the new theater is opening this week, the plans for expansion don't end there. Johnson has an elaborate vision for the future of the Loft: She's had plans drawn up that include using a collection of shipping containers as connective tissue between the existing Loft Cinema and the new theater. The shipping containers will include a new box office and concessions stand as well an upstairs gallery, new bathrooms and extra office and storage space.

The current concession stand will become a bar. The seats in the upstairs theater will be replaced with couches and easy chairs. And an extended patio will stretch across the front of the entire complex.

In all, the price tag will hit $2.5 million, but Johnson has already raised $1 million of that. She's optimistic that she can get the rest and promises that she won't be asking for more down the road.

"Once we get this built, we'll have enough revenue to be able to keep up with the technology without doing another capital campaign," Johnson said. "This is a one-time thing. We're not coming back in five years and saying, 'And now we want to add on this.' This is it. This is the final plan."

Having the extra screens will make it possible to rent the theater out for community events.

"Making it available to the community is one of our core values," Johnson said. "That, and more film, more film, more film."

There are days, especially with the construction of the new space, when the work is "hard, hard, hard," Johnson said.

"But I love it," she quickly added. "It's going to be really successful. I absolutely love it. I'm so happy."

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